It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. – Tom Robbins
A couple of years after I met my husband, I started to have anxiety if I was unable to reach him. I had not experienced anxiety since my late teens and early twenties and quite frankly, I thought I was past all of that. The therapist I began seeing explained that while it may seem that the work I did many years ago had “worn off”, in fact I was dealing with the same fears, but at a deeper level. Life had a funny way of presenting us with these opportunities so we could experience greater healing. Oh great, I said.
I had known that anxiety results from feelings and fears that were never voiced, but repressed. In Tackling Anxiety: Feel It To Heal It, I wrote about how expressing feelings – some of which are pretty old – helps to diminish anxiety over time. However, there is another part to expressing those feelings that is so important – receiving a comforting response.
Toddlers can feel fear when they see their mother or father leave the room because they think the parent is gone forever. This is a normal phase and comforting and reassuring responses from a parent helps to send a message that the child is safe. It also tells the child that his or her fears will be heard and addressed.
Fearful children who experience a comforting response from their parents are far more likely to develop the expectation that everything will turn out all right – even into adulthood when faced with fearful situations. They also won’t judge themselves harshly for feeling fear. They will be able to reassure themselves as adults and reassure the others around them as well.
Those same children won’t think twice about voicing their concerns and expecting a comforting response from others. If the people around them are not offering a comforting response, they will naturally gravitate toward those who are able to be supportive in tough times.
As adults, we treat ourselves the way our parents treated us. If our parents told us to be quiet when we were upset, then as adults we will automatically quash our own difficult feelings when they arise – which causes anxiety and depression. When children learn at an early age to expect a judgmental and critical response – or no response at all – to much of what they have to say, over time, they will slowly stop expressing themselves or asking for help. Anxiety and depression is the result.
It is a whole lot easier to voice what we are afraid of if we know we will receive a reassuring and comforting response in return. If, instead, we automatically and unconsciously assume that we are going to receive a harsh confirmation of our worst fears, there is a powerful incentive to keep everything inside.
Ultimately, every expression of our fears is akin to asking the question, “Is everything going to be OK?” Who has the courage to even ask that question in the first place if we are pretty sure the answer is going to be, “Hell no, you’re screwed! And on top of it, it’s all your fault!”
If receiving comfort was not modeled for us as children, many of us will head into adulthood without the ability to comfort ourselves. Addiction is the alternate method which many find to provide comfort and to numb anxiety. Unfortunately, the immediate relief any addiction provides will, over time, produce a much bigger problem. Alcohol, smoking and drugs are obvious addictions but there are many others that are often not recognized, such as shopping too much, spending hours on the internet, gambling, working too many hours, sleeping around, constant drama, eating too much, solving other people’s problems, keeping too busy, etc.
Even if the people around you were not able to provide a level of comfort and reassurance, it doesn’t mean you just missed the boat and are out of luck. You don’t even need to go back in time to learn what you should have experienced years ago. It may sound odd, but you can receive all of that comfort and reassurance you missed out on, now, from yourself.
It’s helpful to remember that even if you feel like an anxious adult, you still have far more resources than you ever did as a child. If you made it to adulthood, at least a part of you is a mature, wise and resilient person. That part of you can parent the younger, afraid part of you who didn’t receive reassurance. Yes, the resilient adult in you has the ability to raise the anxious part of yourself into adulthood through a process called “dialoguing”.
Dialoguing is an exercise that I learned and at first, I felt more than a little ridiculous doing it. After all, I thought the purpose of therapy was to make sure people stopped talking to themselves. But, as usual, these corny exercises – that I usually make fun of – actually work.
Grab a piece of paper, sit down and write to your younger self. Ask your younger self what he or she is feeling and thinking when anxious. Have your younger self write back. Keep writing until you feel your younger self has been heard. (You may feel more comfortable talking out loud – that is fine.) Just ask your younger self to tell you all of his or her thoughts and feelings.
Here is where this gets good. After you finished, ask your younger self what you can do to provide comfort and reassurance. Then, do it. Do what you would have wanted to do as a child, if you were scared and you had “Parent of the Year” available to comfort you. How would you respond to a child who said he or she was afraid? What would you say to him or her? Ask your younger self what sorts of fun and comforting things you like to do and then take the time out to do them.
You might reach out to someone who is a comforting and reassuring person for you. You might sit in a comfy chair and read your favorite book or watch a favorite movie. You might want to take yourself out for some fun. You might need to take a day off.
Is sitting in a comfy chair or taking one day off going to magically take away your anxiety right away? No, but setting aside time on a regular basis to allow the younger version of yourself to express fear, be heard, and receive the comfort never before received, supports you with the time and space you have not had before to manage difficult feelings. When done on a regular basis, this exercise will do wonders to reduce the anxiety you feel.
It will take some time for anxiety to dissipate. It probably developed over a good many years of conditioning, so it will take at least a little while to experience a relaxed and joyful state. This, coupled with the other methods of tackling anxiety discussed in Change Your Brain and Feel It To Heal It can slowly but surely provide relief you probably thought you’d never feel.